24th Jul 2021

Airport security tops EU and US home affairs meeting

US home affairs chief Janet Napolitano will join EU interior ministers gathering in Toledo to discuss enhancing security in European airports, including via full body scans, following the thwarted airline bomb attempt on Christmas Day.

Ms Napolitano is "firm in her view that scanning is a tool that can be used," but would not try to "impose" this on her European counterparts, a US government official told Brussels journalists ahead of the meeting.

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  • Heathrow: Airports are under increased scrutiny after a failed bomb attack in the US (Photo: dacba10)

The US has increased the number of body scanners at its airports, but the issue remains divisive amongst European governments. Only Great Britain and the Netherlands have introduced these machines, while France and Italy plan to study their efficiency before taking a decision. But other countries, notably Germany and Finland, are more reluctant in approving the use of devices, citing privacy concerns.

The same privacy rights and potential impacts on human health prompted the European Parliament in 2008 to reject plans tabled by the EU commission to introduce full body scanners Europe-wide.

Incoming justice commissioner Viviane Reding is also opposed to the use of these devices unless strict guarantees on privacy are respected, while EU transport commissioner nominee Siim Kallas has indicated the same.

Spain, which holds the EU presidency on matters such as home affairs, is now working on agreeing a common position amongst member states. The three-day informal meeting in Toledo starting on Wednesday (20 January) is however unlikely to produce a final agreement.

"It is probable that this common position will head in the direction of reinforcing security and control of passengers at airports," Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told El Pais.

It was the failed Christmas Day attack which led EU countries "to consider re-inforcing air transport security," he added. A 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who boarded a US flight in Amsterdam, has been accused of trying to detonate a bomb and charged with the attempted murder of 290 people. He has pleaded not guilty.

New security body

EU interior ministers gathering in Toledo for three days (20-22 January) will also discuss the bloc's new "internal security strategy", focusing on the fight against terrorism and data sharing.

One concrete proposal of the Spanish EU presidency concerns the setting up of a new body, the "internal security committee", which should facilitate the direct exchange of intelligence between two or several member states. This should be done in close co-operation with the existing special counter-terrorism co-ordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, and the EU situation centre – a Brussels-based crisis management unit that includes counter-terrorism activities.

National counter-terrorism units in Spain, Great Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Portugal support the plan, sources within the Spanish interior ministry told El Pais earlier this month.

The EU's new legal framework, the Lisbon Treaty, also enables more co-operation and intelligence sharing in this area.

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